#AskATutor

During the coronavirus emergency, we’ve started a new page on our website, #AskATutor. You can find it at https://ideajones.com/?page_id=1161.

Mark and I were tutors helping students K-8 and older ESL learners, and over that time, developed a lot of material to help our students. Lots of people are suddenly homeschooling, so we’re offering tips and materials for parents and other homeschoolers to use at home. Also, you can reach out by commenting on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Ideajones/ and using the hashtag #AskATutor, and we’ll answer if we can.

In the interim, we’ll have to band together (separately — social distance!) to #ProtectOurHerd and to raise our littles. Hang in there — we’ll get through this.

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(“Don’t) Hold My Hand

We should have been doing this all along. Stuff comes through all the time, flu, stomach collywobblers, root rot. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Two times through “Happy Birthday To You” will do it, but I feel silly wishing myself a happy birthday many times a day, every day, all year ’round. So here are some alternatives you can sing (even just to yourself) that seem on-theme:

“Hold My Hand” by Hootie & The Blowfish

‘Cause I got a hand for you. (I got a hand for you).

‘Cause I wanna run with you. (Won’t you let me run with you)?

Hold my hand. (Want you to hold my hand).

Hold my hand. (I’ll take you to a place where you can be)

Hold my hand (Anything you wanna be because)

I wanna love you the best that, the best that I can

“ I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles

Oh yeah, I tell you somethin’ I think you’ll understand.

When I say that somethin’ – I wanna hold your hand!

I wanna hold your hand.

I wanna hold your hand.

Oh please, say to me, you’ll let me be your man.

And please say to me, you’ll let me hold your hand!

I wanna hold your hand.

I wanna hold your hand.

“U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer

My, my, my, my music hits me so hard,
Makes me say, “Oh my Lord,
Thank you for blessing me
With a mind to rhyme and two hype feet.”

It feels good, when you know you’re down
A super dope homeboy from the Oaktown
And I’m known as such
And this is a beat, uh, you can’t touch.

(Feel free to add “U can’t touch this!” a couple of times).

“Get Back” by The Beatles

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner,
But he knew it couldn’t last.
Jojo left his home in Tuscon, Arizona,
Bought some California grass.

Get back, get back,
Get back to where you once belonged.
Get back, get back,
Get back to where you once belonged.

Get back, Jojo!

“I Touch Myself” by Divinyls

I love myself, I want you to love me
When I feel down, I want you above me
I search myself, I want you to find me
I forget myself, I want you to remind me

I don’t want anybody else
When I think about you, I touch myself
Ooh, I don’t want anybody else
Oh no, oh no, oh no.

“Nasty” by Janet Jackson

I don’t like no nasty car, I don’t like a nasty food, huh.
Ooh ooh yeah.
The only nasty thing I like is a nasty groove, huh.
Will this one do?
Uh huh, I know.

Sing. Nasty

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Dance Like Nobody’s Watching

My mom used to say, “We’re on each other’s minds a lot less often than we think we are. While you’re worried about what people think of you, they’re worried about what other people think of THEM.”

Mom was so right. Especially in this social media, selfie-driven age. Where you used to go through the world trying to figure out what the people in your immediate vicinity thought of you, now we wake up and check our phones for thumbs up or thumbs down from an entire world.

Think about that symbolism for a moment. We’re taught that the thumbs up or down was used by Roman emperors to declare whether someone lived or died (not sure if it’s accurate, but for sure it’s what I was taught). Having incorporated those symbols into social media means that we’re not just saying, “I like this,” or, “I don’t like this.” We’re passing judgement on each other. Letting other people declare whether or not we are worthy. Which is why involvement with social media isn’t a good predictor of happiness.

Increasingly, we’re not even bothering to hit “like.” It takes less than a second to do, but now even that often seems like too much trouble. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me in person they really like what I do — and yet they don’t bother to literally “like” it online, or share it. Which can make creating feel like yelling into the abyss — you’re shocked when you hear a response. And yet, there is good news in this, for creators.

Take Twitter. Writers are constantly told we must “build platforms” and increase our “social media presence.” Which can lead to having 2,000 followers, most of whom don’t actually follow what you do, in the sense of paying attention to it. They’re other writers or artists following you so you’ll follow them so it’ll look like you have a lot of followers, yet how many of those followers are truly engaged? One really engaged follower beats 100 (or more) courtesy followers.

Where’s the good news? In creative freedom. You can stop reading tea leaves, casting chicken bones, and otherwise trying to figure out what other people think of you, or what you do. The idea that you actually know, based on numbers of followers, etc., is an illusion.

Do what you do. Create the best version of what you do that you can. Experiment. Learn your craft. Try things, get some wrong, learn from the process. Edit, refine, examine and re-examine. Show the world as much or as little of all that as you choose. Be brave. Wallow, flail, find and develop your stroke, and learn to swim.

In time, you may find your tribe, the people who get what you’re doing and enjoy it. Meantime, at least you’ll be enjoying it.

And if you really want to be a Patron of the Arts, bother to hit “like” occasionally. Comment now and then. Share the stuff you like. Don’t just flood feeds with automatic retweets… make your opinion count by sharing what speaks to you and saying that it does (and even why). Be engaged.

That, by the way, really is a good predictor of happiness — how engaged you are with people and the world around you.

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#QueryRoad: Rejections Come In Flavors

Rejection comes in flavors.

As we learn the fine art of querying a novel to agents, there are a few things that are becoming clear. One is that rejection comes in flavors, like ice cream (I know, you probably think getting a rejection is more like eating cat litter and the “flavors” are just “used and unused,” but…

Rejection isn’t just a one-size-doesn’t-fit-any, unredeemable experience. It’s not poking your head into a dumpster, where everything stinks and the only detail is “stinks of what, exactly?” Some rejections are actually useful, and others are, if not exactly enjoyable, more than merely nutritious.

First, the “no flavor” rejections. A lot of agents and agencies specify that you will only hear from them if they’re interested. Which leaves you wondering if anyone even saw your query letter. Saying “no” is not fun (unless you’re an unpleasant person, more about that in a moment). So, like the first date who ghosts you, it’s understandable if sad that so many don’t even bother to acknowledge your submission. This isn’t ice cream. It’s a glass of air.

Next comes the form letter. These come from really formulaic letters that you can tell nobody spent time on (“Thank you for your submission which doesn’t fit our needs goodbye”) to ones where they’re at least trying (“Thank you for your submission and while we are unable to represent it, we realize it’s not easy to go through this process and you have to understand, it’s all very subjective, so don’t give up and good luck”).

The former is “school ice cream” that comes in a paper cup and tastes like cold milk someone packed while looking at a bottle of vanilla they never thought to pour into the ice cream. The latter is the least expensive store brand vanilla, that might not be memorable, but at least has some flavor.

Kudos to the people who at least send the form letter, who stand high above the ones who don’t even bother to do that. At least you know they saw your submission.

After that comes the personal note. We’ve gotten a number of those, and they range from one who said “I really wish I could identify what isn’t quite working for me here,” which, while not especially helpful, at least is a personal response from a human being, to “this strong writing and funny, it just isn’t quite right for my list. I really want to see the next book you write, if you don’t have an agent already, but you will.”

The writer of that last one will live in my heart with gratitude. And will definitely see the next book I’m working on, if I don’t have an agent by the time it’s done.

But I’m grateful to anyone who takes time to write even a brief personal note. I’ve gotten a few, some very encouraging. Agents, especially good ones, get a ton of submissions. So to give you a personal response, that person has to take time out of her (or his) day, think about you for a bit, write a note and send it, knowing that you, a stranger, may simply be hurt by the “no” and not appreciate the time and effort it took to write to you. It’s been explained to me that once you’re getting personal notes, it’s another step toward achieving your goal, because agents don’t take time to write those unless they see something they want to encourage.

These rejections are, as rejections go, the good stuff, ranging from “better than the cheap stuff, with some flavor” to “this is the luxury ice cream you serve to company or buy to spoil yourself, or to eat after a really bad breakup, because it’s good enough to remind you life is still worth living.”

Finally, and I’ve only gotten one of these, the really awful rejection, where you get a personal note, and it’s useless, uninformative, and just plain mean. I found out later the same agent had sent variations of that letter to multiple people. We’re back to cat litter here. You may well get at least one pint of used cat litter ice cream. Just know that it isn’t you. Nobody worth bothering about sends anyone used cat litter ice cream.

I don’t know the average, but looking into it, I found that those “I showed my first book to one agent, who signed me and sold it for many dollars” story is so rare as to be almost (not quite) an urban myth. The usual story is “I wrote a book and queried 50-200 agents before one took a chance on me, and wrote the next book in the year+ it took her to sell the first one.”

Rejection is baked into the professional writing experience. I’ve been an editor, and can tell you I hated saying “no.” Hated. It. You’d much rather say “yes,” but you can’t say yes as often as you would like to. There is nothing, with the possible exception of oxygen, that is for everyone. Once you get published, not everyone will like what you write. It’s just that way.

If you get a “school ice cream day” vanilla form letter, or an “I sent this and never heard back” glass of room-temperature air, well, that’s one closer to finding your agent, the one who gets what you’re doing. If you get a “store brand vanilla,” be grateful that someone at least took time to let you know. If a “luxury brand” rejection comes your way, mine it for anything useful, be grateful for the time that person took to encourage you, and keep going.

Actually, no matter what, keep going.

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#QueryRoad

The query letter has to be as good as the book. Maybe better.


“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write. Will you take a look?” — The Beatles

Something I’ve learned while searching for an agent: writing the book may be the easy part. Here I thought all that time spent mumbling to myself, scratching notes on diner napkins, and otherwise trying to put together one really good sentence, then another, and stack them together into something worth paying to read was the heavy lifting. Editing, polishing, polishing again… that had to be the hard part. I didn’t expect finding an agent and selling a book to be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be the start of a secondary writing career, either.

I didn’t know how many documents have to march in front of an unpublished book, carrying the banner and blowing trumpets. Loglines. Synopses. And, oh God, Query Letters.

Looking back, my first query letter, as artist Berke Breathed put it, “wasn’t that bad, but Lord, it wasn’t good.” Each form of writing has its own sales style. I could, and had, write a successful pitch to land a freelance assignment, but writing a query letter for my novel that way left it as dry as a cracker.Plus, I’d gotten to the point where I was getting assignments through other editors or producers who had recommended me, so I wasn’t pitching often.

In Girl Scouts, I was the kid who towed the wagon full of cookie boxes if the other girl would ring the doorbell and talk to people. I’m a major introvert. My pitch skills were near zero.

So I did the research. If you’re trying this, seriously, do your homework. It’s fine to ask other people what they think, but also read articles on reputable writer sites (like Writer’s Digest, and literary agent blogs). I did, and here are some of the tips that come up repeatedly (in no particular order):

  1. Be brief. A query letter is supposed to be a single page.
  2. Include the name of your book, genre and approximate word count. Target audience, too (and do NOT, whatever you do, say, “This book would be popular with everyone!” Nothing is popular with everyone. Who, really, is probably going to enjoy this book?).
  3. Include qualifications (both to write this book, and as a professional writer), if you have them. Placed (or won) any writing competitions? Participated in writing workshops or taken classes? Been published (for example, if, like me, you’ve had articles, etc. published)? How do you know about this subject (especially important for nonfiction books)? If you haven’t had anything published, then you haven’t, but if you have, the bio paragraph is your chance to say so.
  4. Describe your book in a paragraph:
    1. Protagonist/antagonist
    2. Conflict
    3. Stakes (What does your protagonist need? What threatens him/her getting it?)
    4. Some idea of why this book would be interesting for a reader
  5. In your bio, if you belong to writing groups/associations, mention it.
  6. Address the letter to the agent by name AND DOUBLE-CHECK THE SPELLING
  7. Contact info
  8. Comparable books in your genre. People like something that is a twist on something familiar — the actually completely unfamiliar is something most people won’t risk their careers/income on, and you’re asking an agent to do just that. Show that you’ve given this some thought. Best if your comps are fairly recent and fairly successful. Comparing your car to a 1970s Gremlin isn’t likely to sell it
  9. Platform (social media) if you have one. Twitter handle, Facebook, etc. Keep in mind the agent, if interested, will likely check you out on social media, so watch the posts of half-naked pictures of you passed out, drunk. You don’t have to wear a muzzle, just, y’know, be aware that the most important word in “social media” is SOCIAL. All kinds of people see it.

Craft your query letter with as much attention as you spent to craft your book. It’s your sales rep, knocking on doors and pitching you and your book as something every good agent needs!

While crafting your query letter, logline and synopsis, craft a rejection strategy, because you are, at the start or at some point, going to get rejected. Comes with the territory. If Kathryn Stockett, Stephen King, JK Rowling and even Dr. Seuss got rejections, you and I probably will as well. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Some successful authors were rejected over a hundred times before getting a break. My personal routine is: 2 minutes to be disappointed, chocolate, exercise, pet my dogs, send out a query letter for each rejection. Sometimes more.

Good luck! Hope to meet you on the bestseller list some day!


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